In the spirit of honest conversation inspired by our recent discussion with Vu Le, nonprofit leader, and Nonprofit AF blogger, the Social Innovation Forum (SIF) convened an energetic crowd of nonprofit leaders and funders for an early morning gathering on June 21 at the SIF office. We enjoyed donuts and coffee together while Susan Musinsky led the group in a facilitated discussion to revisit many of the challenges that Vu presented when we first gathered together in April.
Inherent in the SIF marketplace is the understanding that a strong nonprofit sector relies on deep partnerships and trusting relationships between our funders and nonprofits. We know that both groups are strengthened when they recognize the mutual benefit of working together and communicating honestly, but as we heard once again on June 21, those conversations are difficult to have.
In an effort to provide a forum where we can improve nonprofit-funder relationships, Susan acknowledged the risks nonprofits take in sharing information with funders and the challenges funders face in being responsive to the great demand. There was a lot of moving around the room during the hour and a half conversation to allow nonprofit leaders and funders to speak with one another as well as provide a chance for nonprofit leaders to speak with their peers in the sector and funders to do the same. We wanted to remind them that if there was a place to have a conversation--this was the time and place.
We are all just people who like donuts and at the end of the day we are all trying to solve the same problems
The guests responded to a number of questions introduced to facilitate deeper conversation.
- What keeps you up at night?
- What do you want nonprofits leaders/funders to know about you as a nonprofit leader/funder?
- What kinds of things would you say to the other group if you could?
The conversations initially happened alongside peers – funder to funder and nonprofit to nonprofit – but we reconnected as a full group to encourage some risk-taking. As expected the room quieted a bit, but some guests in both groups were able to speak and be heard in a supportive environment.
Foundation staff in the room acknowledged a challenging power dynamic between nonprofits and foundation board members with foundation staff uncomfortably in the middle. They shared how those internal relationships may impact decision making in a way that is unclear to nonprofits. This acknowledgment led to a suggestion to bring those partners together for a transparent conversation along with some suggestions about how that might be facilitated. On the funder side, we also heard of one foundation that is hosting executive director lunches to hear what funders do that “drive the nonprofits crazy” and learn how to be better partners. This openness and willingness to give and take criticism on behalf of the funder was welcomed by the nonprofit leaders at that table discussion.
Our nonprofit leaders wondered if funders inform their funder colleagues about nonprofit organizations they are not able fund themselves to encourage others donors to take a close look. It was reassuring to hear that this practice is happening. Comments also came up about a disconnect when funders want to fund an initiative that the nonprofit does not think best aligns with their work, leaving nonprofit leaders feeling pressured to chase the dollars. Lastly, it was thought-provoking to hear one nonprofit leader share that what keeps her up at night is that they are often asked to demonstrate a track record of fundraising success, but when they do so, the funder sometimes uses that success as a reason to move on.
A past Social Innovator suggested that continued conversations together could give nonprofits the confidence to push back a little and share a little more. Another participant suggested that the more funders hear these tidbits from nonprofits the less shocked they will be by the challenges commonly experienced by nonprofit leaders.
We encourage everyone to take a look at Vu’s book, Unicorns Unite: How Nonprofits and Foundations Can Build EPIC Partnerships. SIF will continue to convene funders and nonprofit leaders as often as possible but recognize the need to follow up the conversations with action. We encourage our guests to think about what their action might be and as Vu reminded us in April, “stop the B.S. cycle and do stuff.” Our attendees expressed a willingness for more opportunities for connection and dialogue. SIF is happy to bring the donuts and our action is to explore ways to continue the conversation.